Listen to ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons' 'Sal Y Pimiento' From His Cuban-Flavored Debut Solo Album: Exclusive Track Premiere
Up until late last year, the music ZZ Top's Billy F. Gibbons was making felt a bit too familiar. "There are about five or six completed records in the can, believe it or not, but they just sounded so much like ZZ Top records that there was no immediate need to release them," he says.
Then he was invited to play at the 2014 Havana Jazz Festival in Cuba, which he wasn't able to do; concurrently, however, he had booked some studio time in Houston, and a chance encounter with a Cuban-style restaurant in his hotel -- named Sal y Pimento (Salt and Pepper) -- gave Gibbons the idea for a new musical direction that led to the unexpected path of his first-ever solo album, Perfectamundo, due out Nov. 6 and co-produced by longtime Gibbons cohort Joe Hardy
"When I arrived at the studio the engineer said, 'What are we doing today?' I said, 'Well, we're making a Cuban album,'" Gibbons recalls with a laugh. "Of course, they thought I'd finally lost my mind entirely, but I flipped the business card from (the restaurant) on the deck and said, 'Well, here's the title. Let's chase it.' And drawing upon my rather limited command of sort of Spanish, we found ourselves actually enjoying dredging up what we thought might constitute genuine Cuban sounds. At the end of the day we were smitten and quite satisfied with what had transpired and just kept going."
Listen to the track "Sal y Pimiento" below, which Billboard is exclusively premiering below.
Perfectamundo does, in fact, fuse plenty of Cuban and other Latin influences with Gibbons' regular gumbo of rock and blues, incorporating plenty of percussion and even some hip-hop flavors. It's not entirely unfamiliar terrain for Gibbons, either; he actually received some timbale tutelage when he was a youth from none other than the great Tito Puente, who was a friend of Gibbons' bandleader father. More challenging was writing songs in Spanish and adapting his usual songwriting techniques to the different language.
"I was used to writing material for ZZ Top using Western guidelines, which includes the rhyming scheme, and that is a rarity in Spanish music," Gibbons explains. "Most Latin songs don't bother with rhyming so much. The importance lies in telling a story. But on [the title track] "Perfectamundo" the verse structure still incorporates the rhyming scheme, and we thought that was really funny -- 'OK, you're gonna write a song in a language that you don't really know, and you're gonna make it all rhyme and make sense?' So, yeah, I think the safe term is 'compositional challenges,' but we worked our way through that and came up with something that's our own unique thing."
Gibbons says ZZ Top's success and heavy touring schedule long kept him from contemplating a solo album, and that he always thought if he were ever to do one he would just wind up hiring Frank Beard and Dusty Hill to play on it anyway. But Perfectamundo is populated by others, including the likes of pianist Martin Guigui, organist Mike Flanigan, singer-bassist Alex Garza, drummer Greg Morrow, guitarist Gary Moon and the Cubano Nationale Beat Generator percussion ensemble.
"It was kind of refreshing to actually be stepping beyond the trio that everyone knows as ZZ Top," Gibbons says. "All of the different musicians played a big part in creating something very different."
He'll be doing that on the road starting Nov. 10 in Atlanta, when he takes his BFG band out for a run that includes this year's Havana Jazz Festival. He'll be playing plenty from Perfectamundo, of course, but ZZ Top fans can count on hearing some of they songs they know and love in some shape or form.
"I spoke to Jimmy Page. I said, 'Well, when Robert Plant went out and when you want out, how heavy was the demand for Led Zeppelin tunes?'" Gibbons recalls. "And Jimmy goes, 'Put on your seat belt. It's gonna be there.' So right now we're trying to figure out, 'Well, do we attempt to Cubanize a ZZ number or do we just play it straight?' There's no hard decision yet but we're tip-toeing around it, and I think just to have some fun we'll give ZZ another peculiar twist, this time taking it toward the straits of Florida or something."
Before another solo album, meanwhile, it's likely that ZZ Top will release something new -- the long-awaited follow-up to 2012's Rick Rubin-produced La Futura. There's no shortage of material, with lots of new ideas as well as material left over from sessions with Rubin. "There's a lot of good stuff," Gibbons promises. "It's a good problem when you have too much stuff. And we've got enough elements now to go back into the studio and start the writing process and see what takes there, too."